Skip to content

Contrasting strategies at India show why Vettel continues to win

Oct 28, 2013, 7:46 AM EDT

F1 Grand Prix of India - Race Getty Images

The Indian Grand Prix proved to be another fascinating tactical battle between teams and drivers, showing that there’s often more than one way to get the best out of a race situation.

When the teams ran in Friday’s free practice sessions, it quickly became clear that the two nominated tire compounds had vastly different characteristics. The soft tire, or option, delivered a lap time around a second faster than the medium, or prime, but deteriorated significantly within a handful of laps. The medium was slower, yet withstood the abrasive surface of the Buddh International Circuit and showed almost no signs of degradation or wear for long spells, even on heavy fuel loads.

This all meant that race strategy, even more so than normal, had to be planned out before qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

The two most obvious race strategies were to qualify, and therefore start the Grand Prix, on the faster option tire, run that for a short spell, before doing two long stints on prime to the end; or conversely qualify and start on prime, even though it meant taking a hit on lap time and therefore grid position, before another stint of the same and switching to the options right at the end of the race.

There wasn’t much on paper between the two, but in fact most simulations had the latter version coming out as being slightly quicker by four or five seconds over the course of the entire race. Both were therefore feasible options and a few teams chose to cover both bases and split their two drivers.

You might ask why, if one strategy shows up as being four seconds faster than another, doesn’t everyone just go with that one?

There’re many factors to be taken into consideration before deciding on race plans, some aren’t always obvious to the outside world.

First, teams need to look at their two drivers and pinpoint their individual strengths and weaknesses. If one driver is clearly better than the other at looking after tires, he could manage a longer stint on options, or even in extreme cases, look at one less stop than his teammate. We saw this in Japan between the two Red Bull drivers.

Another consideration is a driver’s ability to cleanly overtake the pack if he comes out into traffic after a pitstop. Again, we saw the difference between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in Japan when both of their strategies needed them to catch and pass Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Vettel did it quickly and cleanly, without losing time or hurting tires behind his rival. Webber spent two laps fighting under the Lotus’ rear wing and lost time on the track to his teammate, but took valuable life from his Pirellis, which meant his strategy failed.

The ability to deliver a qualifying lap late in the session, under pressure and without the need to do multiple runs will determine how many new sets of tires the team have to use in the race. This obviously has a big impact on strategy.

In India, those who qualified and started on options had already taken three laps of life from their tires before the race had even begun, those who were able to save options and then set Q3 times on primes, were able to keep a brand new set for the last race stint. On a circuit where soft tires only lasted a few short laps, that was where part of those four or five seconds difference would come from over the alternate race strategy.

The team know their drivers inside out and so the best strategy for one, may not be necessarily the best for the other.

Other factors that come into play when deciding how to approach a race include the nature of the circuit. The first one or two turns can be crucial after the race start when the field’s bunched up, adrenaline’s high and nothing’s quite up to temperature. If the run down to turn one’s short and the corner tight, a team might prefer to go all out in qualifying to be at the front and in relative safety, over a seemingly preferable race strategy that might have them on alternate tires but further down the pack, like Webber did on Sunday. While Vettel got through the first few turns in the clear and unscathed, his teammate got caught up with other cars and compromised his original plan just a little bit.

The statistical chance of a safety car at any particular circuit can have a huge impact on deciding a team’s race decisions. The chance of the safety car playing a part generally diminishes after the first two laps of any race. In India, those who started on option, like Vettel, would’ve benefited had that happened early on, enabling them to pit and ditch the soft tire, spending the rest of the race on mediums.

When Webber stopped on lap 29 today, he took soft, option tires, perhaps not the ideal tire for that part of the race, but he did it with a safety car in mind. If an incident had occurred, he too could’ve used the ‘free’ pit stop to switch back to the prime and finish the race on them. If he’d taken primes at the stop and the safety car had then come out, it would’ve ruined his Grand Prix as he’d have been forced to stop and take options, having not yet used them, and been left with an unmanageably long last stint.

In hindsight this was over-cautious. In the three years we’ve been racing in India, the safety car hasn’t yet made an appearance and at that middle stage of the race, it was highly unlikely it was going to. His fastest way to the end was to stay on primes and take the new options for a very fast, but short final stint, when the car was at its lightest and the field at its most stretched. In the end it was academic as he retired with an alternator failure.

Weather; track evolution; the amount of time lost in pitlane for each stop; the car’s characteristics like top speed or traction and many other parameters are all carefully considered before heading into qualifying. Of course depending on the outcome of Saturday afternoons, the whole thing needs looking at again, the simulation models updated with grid positions, another look at the forecasts, start performance and so on.

Many people, both at the track and back at the team’s European bases work through the night to give the drivers and engineers the best possible scenarios before Sunday’s race, but once the lights go out it’s a constantly morphing model and the team need to be able to react as the race unfolds.

Often it’s the ability to think on one’s feet, that sets a good team apart from a great one.

Latest Posts
  1. Carpenter, SFHR top single-car teams in year before fusion into CFH

    Sep 1, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

    CarpenterCap Getty Images

    Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing end as the top single-car teams in 2014, before merging in 2015.

  2. Feelin’ free: Frustrations end for Chase-bound Kahne, IndyCar champ Power

    Sep 1, 2014, 1:38 PM EDT

    Oral-B USA 500 Getty Images

    Kasey Kahne saves his season in Atlanta, while Will Power changes his career in Fontana.

  3. Carlos Munoz Sunoco Rookie of the Year in a deep IndyCar freshman class

    Sep 1, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

    MunozROY Getty Images

    Carlos Munoz takes home the top rookie honors after a successful first full season in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

  4. Honda preps for first simulations, expresses confidence it can match Mercedes

    Sep 1, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT

    Remember the Honda MP4-4 that won five consecutive Formula 1 championships from 1987-1991? Here's one of the cars the late Ayrton Senna drove to one of three Honda-powered titles. AP

    Honda’s motorsport chief provides an update on the company’s F1 engine progress.

  5. IndyCar: Power leads award winners during series championship celebration

    Sep 1, 2014, 10:27 AM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    IndyCar championship banquet goes off quickly, smoothly with a good bit of humor.

  6. Danica Patrick finishes career-best 6th after G-W-C craziness in Atlanta

    Sep 1, 2014, 1:25 AM EDT

    Oral-B USA 500 - Qualifying Getty Images

    The result beats her previous high water mark of seventh this past May at Kansas.

  7. Kevin Harvick far from being happy after Paul Menard wrecks him, costing a chance for win

    Sep 1, 2014, 1:10 AM EDT

    (Photo: Jonathan Moore/Getty Images) Getty Images

    HAMPTON, Ga. — It was a rough night for a number of drivers in Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta, including Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose.

  8. Kenseth clinches Chase berth; Bowyer falls out of Grid with one race to go

    Sep 1, 2014, 12:43 AM EDT

    Oral-B USA 500 Getty Images

    Matt Kenseth enters the post-season with a second place result, while Clint Bowyer finds himself outside the Chase Grid going into next Saturday’s regular season finale.

  9. Kasey Kahne rallies in last 2 laps to win at Atlanta, makes Chase

    Sep 1, 2014, 12:14 AM EDT

    Kahne wins at Atl 2014 Getty Images

    HAMPTON, Ga. – Kasey Kahne’s 17th career Sprint Cup win couldn’t have been any larger.

  10. Tony Stewart’s comeback hopes end with rough 41st-place finish at Atlanta

    Aug 31, 2014, 10:07 PM EDT

    stewart atlanta 2014 Getty Images

    HAMPTON, Ga. – It was not the comeback that Tony Stewart had hoped for.

  11. NASCAR Atlanta Update: Stewart falls back after contact with Kyle Busch; Kenseth leads

    Aug 31, 2014, 9:45 PM EDT

    Oral-B USA 500 Getty Images

    Tony Stewart’s return to competition tonight at Atlanta Motor Speedway has encountered some trouble after a restart run-in with “Rowdy.”

  12. Schumacher (TF), Hagan (FC), Line (PS), Krawiec (PSM) ones to beat in Monday’s NHRA U.S. Nationals finals

    Aug 31, 2014, 9:08 PM EDT

    2014 NHRA U.S. Nationals LOGO

    Following Sunday’s final round of qualifying, Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) will lead their respective classes as No. 1 qualifiers for Monday’s final eliminations of the 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.

  13. Tony Stewart the obvious fan favorite during pre-race introductions at Atlanta

    Aug 31, 2014, 7:28 PM EDT

    ATL fans pre-race 2014 Getty Images

    HAMPTON, Ga. — There was no question which driver received the most applause and cheers during driver introductions prior to the start of Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

  14. Another major sponsor reaffirms backing of Tony Stewart

    Aug 31, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

    Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts - Practice Getty Images

    Rush Truck Centers’ CEO: “We stand with Tony.”

  15. How many Chase spots will still be in play after Atlanta?

    Aug 31, 2014, 5:34 PM EDT

    Pure Michigan 400 - Practice Getty Images

    Matt Kenseth can clinch a spot in the post-season with a finish of seventh or better in tonight’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

  16. Atlanta Motor Speedway honors longtime motorsports reporter ‘Capt. Herb’ Emory

    Aug 31, 2014, 4:25 PM EDT

    herb emory AMS media center

    HAMPTON, Ga. — Atlanta Motor Speedway will honor longtime Atlanta-area broadcaster and motorsports reporter “Capt. Herb” Emory, who passed away in April at the age of 61, prior to Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

  17. Ryan Blaney takes last-lap duel, wins NASCAR Trucks at CTMP (VIDEO)

    Aug 31, 2014, 4:09 PM EDT

    14th Annual Michigan National Guard 200 - Practice Getty Images

    Ryan Blaney uses a cross-over move on German Quiroga in the final corner and then beats him to the stripe, winning the Chevrolet Silverado 250.

  18. NHRA: Tony Schumacher claims $100K Top Fuel bonus at U.S. Nationals

    Aug 31, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT

    NHRA Auto Racing AP

    The 9-time U.S. Nationals champion dispatches Richie Crampton in the final of the Traxxas Shootout with a track-record speed of 328.54 mph.

  19. Former Caterham staff begin legal action against team

    Aug 31, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain - Practice Getty Images

    The legal wranglings following the sale of the team look set to continue.

  20. Mosley: Mercedes shouldn’t publicly chastise Rosberg

    Aug 31, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT

    BRITAIN-MEDIA-POLITICS-LEVESON Getty Images

    Former FIA president believes Mercedes made a mistake hanging its dirty laundry out for all to see.

Video from NASCAR America

Inside Tony Stewart's return to racing
Top 10 NASCAR Driver Searches
  1. J. Gordon (2238)
  2. K. Harvick (2074)
  3. T. Stewart (1585)
  4. K. Busch (1390)
  5. J. Logano (1355)